The Epsom Salt tablets and tubes of liniment are back on the bathroom shelf. The riding clothes and riding shoes are packed away. The small town cheering has died down. The summer smells of roadkill and oily asphalt have receded into memory.
It’s been almost two months since Tracy Draper and her team completed a 3,059-mile bicycle ride across America, that began June 5 in Topanga Beach and parts of the San Fernando Valley, and ended July 8 in Ameila Island, FL. And it still feels like an impossible dream.
“It is still sinking in,” said Draper, when contacted by the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol. “I don’t know if the feeling — ‘how did they do this?’ — totally leaves. I keep thinking, ‘I can’t believe we did it.’ It’s still a little surreal…I think it will take awhile.”
Team captain Draper and her fellow Floridian cyclists — (in alphabetical order) Bill Bellew, co-captain Ed Bennett, Ruth D’Auito, Marion Kusters, Scott Manning, and Scott Sherrick, along with equipment manager and support vehicle driver Clay Smith — spent 35 days (of which 31 were spent riding bikes) going through 12 states, and numerous towns and cities for what Draper had called “the ride of a lifetime.”
The journey initially began as a personal quest for Draper, a cycling enthusiast and personal trainer. But it evolved into a fundraiser for Hope For The Warriors, a nonprofit organization that aids returning military veterans.
The goal was to raise $30,000. The team’s donation page is listed on their website rideacrossua.com. Draper said about $20,000 has been raised.
“We will not shut the page down until the end of September,” Draper said. “And people are still donating.”
Anne Barnwell, senior director of communications for Hope For The Warriors, described the team’s effort as “incredible,” and said “people from all over the country had reached out” to the organization after hearing about or meeting the riders.
“They are impressed with both the team’s determination and their commitment to helping military families. They are an amazing group,” Barnwell said, adding that Warriors Director Stephen Bartomioli joined the riders for their final days on the road, and also at a Miami Marlin’s baseball game where the team was recognized.
But it’s the sheer magnitude of the ride itself, and the experiences from it, that resonate just as strongly as the cause it served.
Some of highlights included:
• Climbing through 108,000 feet of hills and mountains. “That’s like going up Mt. Everest 3.7 times,” Draper said. “I did the math. And I felt every inch.” But the team — all conditioned and experienced riders who Draper had met at various Florida cycle clubs and convinced to join her — rode every mile of the trip. There were no debilitating injuries nor did anyone take a few miles off in the support vehicle.
• As they approached Kingman, Kansas on June 23, the team found two American Legion motorcyclists with 3×4 foot American flags on the back of their bikes waiting to escort them the final 15 miles into town. Once in Kingman, Draper said, Sheriff’s deputies and police escorted them to the church where they had made arrangements to sleep that night. “When we got to the church, there were flags all over the property and townspeople were waving flags to greet us,” she said. “It was a hero’s welcome and I cried. This is what our vets deserve; we’re just riding our bikes.”
There were also lessons learned during the quest.
“I found out that I can do more than I think I can, and I can put up with more than I ever dreamed,” Draper said. “The hardest part was not the riding. That was an escape. It was the emotional and mental wear and tear that affected me, being the organizer, travel agent, and main media person.”
“The attention was more flattering in the beginning. The longer the journey, the more it got wearing. We were grateful for it, but we were physically exhausted at the end.”
A mental letdown was inevitable. But Draper isn’t just putting her feet up and kicking back. Along with reviving her trainer client base, she is serving as this year’s director of thethree-day Mount Dora Bicycle Festival in Florida from Oct. 10-12 Anniversary.
And she is working on a book.
“It’s based on the ride and dream of the ride, and the lessons learned,” Draper said. “I wrote 3 chapters before we left, and two more since we got back. I’m just letting it come out.”